Iowa is experiencing a surge of coronavirus outbreaks at long-term care facilities, including at one of the nation's largest nursing homes for military veterans, the state reported Tuesday.
The Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed that an outbreak at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown had spread in recent days to include the infection of a combined 20 staff and residents. Six other outbreaks at facilities across the state were confirmed, bringing their total to 23 since the pandemic's beginning.
The news comes as the coronavirus continued to rapidly spread in parts of the state.
Health officials reported Tuesday that an additional 508 people in Iowa had tested positive for COVID-19 and nine more people had died of the disease. Another 304 were hospitalized, one-third of them in intensive care.
The state's numbers reflected testing through Monday at 10 a.m. and didn't include 405 additional cases announced in Black Hawk County, one of the state's hot spots. The county said that 1% of its 131,000 residents had tested positive, most of them linked to a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo that closed last week.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state would open a mobile testing site Wednesday at a Waterloo mall for essential workers and others who qualify. She said another would open soon in Woodbury County, as there has been an outbreak at a Tyson beef plant across the border in Nebraska that has hammered the region.
Despite the worsening situation in key cities, the governor moved ahead with plans to partially reopen 77 of Iowa's 99 counties on Friday. Restaurants, some bars, malls, retail stores, libraries and gyms will be allowed to reopen under new social distancing rules. Farmers markets and church services will also reopen statewide.
The governor said 98% of Tuesday's cases and the new nursing home outbreaks were in the 22 counties that have tighter restrictions in place through May 15. She used her daily news conference to encourage residents to soon return to their favorite restaurants, saying they will be safe to visit under new guidelines.
Iowa Workforce Development warned that furloughed workers who refuse to return when called back by their employers will generally lose their unemployment benefits. Staying home due to fear of contracting the virus will be considered a "voluntary quit," which is disqualifying, the agency said.
A top Iowa infectious disease expert warned on Twitter that the state is "opening up at the exact wrong time," calling it a tragic error that could soon overwhelm hospitals. University of Iowa professor of epidemiology Eli Perencevich said that he had been most worried about major outbreaks at long-term care facilities, including the Iowa Veterans Home.
"High levels of community transmission places these vulnerable veterans at very high risk," wrote Perencevich, who leads the Iowa Infection Prevention Research Group.
The Iowa Veterans Home says it is the third largest nursing home for veterans in the nation, with several different buildings on a 150-acre campus. The home said recently that more than 500 residents were living there.
Commandant Timon Oujiri confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday that its first two residents had tested positive, in addition to a dozen employees. He said then that the residents were transferred to the Des Moines VA for precautionary care.
About half of the state's 136 deaths and 10% of its 6,300 confirmed infections have been linked to long-term care facility outbreaks. That includes 24 deaths at Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids, the site of the state's deadliest outbreak, where 112 residents and workers were infected.
Residents of the state's 440 long-term care facilities are considered particularly vulnerable to the virus due to their age and health conditions. The state defines an outbreak as one in which at least three residents have tested positive.